Indulgences as the HOV lane to heaven


This news story about the Catholic Church and indulgences is a old now, but I have meant for a while to comment on it. Here is how the New York Times described the doctrine:

According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.
This involves esoteric and highly specific details about the afterlife, along with a prescription for how to influence this outcome through specific actions--naturally, mediated through the institution of the Catholic Church.

This is a theology that says that certain kinds of good works or religious activity can grant you access to the HOV lane to heaven. I am an agnostic on the question of the afterlife, and I think good works should be their own reward, rather than as a way of erasing points off your permanent record, so this whole doctrine of indulgences makes no sense to me at any level. It seems to me, if anything, that it is a bit of an exercise in power tripping by a church that claims all sorts of divinely sanctioned authority for itself on matters that I think should best be left to God. But maybe that's just me.


John Shuck said...

The Seeker is back!

I hope you keep posting! Haven't even read the post yet, just saw that you posted and that was enough for me! : )

Mystical Seeker said...

John, maybe you should have read the posting before you commented, in case you decided that what I wrote wasn't that interesting. :)

John Shuck said...

I have indulged you and read the post, and I agree with you. It is such a huge load of superstition that it baffles me completely how an institution could possibly convince anyone of this, let alone millions of people for hundreds of years.

CT said...

The Seeker is still alive !!!!

Surely there isnt anyone who takes teaching about indulgences seriously is there ? Nearly all religions have some teachings that are clearly dodgy (suspect) and this is one of the best from the Catholic Church.

But they have many more - have you heard about the latest application for sainthood for Mary McKillop in Australia ? It seems a patient prayed to Mary, got better , and that gives Mary her second miracle so she can qualify for sainthood.

Check out

But seriously you are looking at an easy target here Mystical.

CT said...

Sorry - one more thing.

You may be interested in the story of a Brisbane Priest who is being thrown out of his church for not adhering to strict Catholic teachings. This guy has a huge following and the archbishop was turning a blind eye until some 'spy' came in and taped a session and sent a report to Rome. Father Peter Kennedy is his name and he had the 'audacity' to let a woman preside over the eucharist, bless a same-sex union and not wear the appropriate attire.


Mystical Seeker said...

CT, that news item about the priest in Brisbane is unfortunate, but I guess not really surprising.

Frank said...

Very disappointing. Take something you know nothing about, do no research on it, then condemn it.

PrickliestPear said...


So happy to see someone who understands indulgences finally weighing in!

I was wondering, though. Indulgences were granted for specific acts or prayers, and they were given with the promise of a remission of a very specific length of time.

My question is, where did the bishops get this information? How did they know that saying this or that prayer would shorten one's purgatorial tenure by 40 or 100 or 300 days? Or the whole thing, in the case of a plenary indulgence?

Did they actually do empirical research, or were they just guessing?

Frank said...

This is not my area of expertise, but it is my understanding that indulgences are in some ways a form of pennance--a public way of making good on something after a sin. The original practice was quite profound (before the Middle Ages). If you throw a baseball through your neighbors window, you can ask forgiveness and they can give it, but you still should repair the window. Pennance is about repairing the window or "paying it forward" when that option doesn't exist. Even if the forgiveness is already there, it is still a growth opportunity make good on what you did wrong.

Certainly indulgences have been both misused and misunderstood, but like many of Luther's complaints, the issue was really in the distortions that occured in the common practice rather than in the theology itself.

A quick Google will get you, which has it's flaws but can at least get you in the ballpark.

Indulgences are tied to the idea of purgatory, which is also very misunderstood, but it has to do with the purging and purifying that has to go on either during this life or the next to prepare a person for union with the Blessed Trinity. The idea that there are some things you can do such as acts of charity or prayer to advance yourself this way and thus "shorten" this purifying period can seem more reasonable under this light, but I am sure all modern Church leadership would never claim to know specific days or time shortened in purgatory (especially since "time" is a big non-issue anyway in the afterlife, see Augustine's Confessions for a discussion of time). All this can give the false impression that we are doing "acts" in that we work our way to the afterlife, thereby bypassing God's grace which saves and giving the impression that we are saving ourselves, but that isn't actually what is going on, but that's a discussion for another day for me.

Mystical Seeker said...

I'm all in favor of encouraging people to do good things and to seek penance for what they do that is wrong. I think most people are. I don't that is where the controversy lies, though. It is instead, I think, all the accretions of theology that surround it that are the source of the problem.

For one thing, I think that penance ultimately ought to be based on an internally motivated desire to do right for others, rather than as a means of reducing one's own "temporal punishments". The whole tie to purgatory makes this whole indulgences thing seem rather selfish. It gets back to the problem I see of basing so much of Christianity on concerns about the afterlife. I would rather we take the afterlife out of the equation--I think Christianity would be better served if we did. But hey, that's probably just me.

When I was a fundamentalist teenager, the church I belonged to had its youth group doing various acts of charity. One example involved raking leaves at an old woman's house. A friend of mine who was active in that youth group invited me to come along for the leaf raking, which I did, because I thought it was a great thing to be doing. Then I found out that the teens who did this earned points toward some kind of reward that the church gave out (I don't recall what it was.) I was deeply disillusioned when I heard this. I thought everyone else was doing this because it was the right thing to do, not to earn points.

I described in my original blog posting the doctrine of indulgences as an act of power tripping by the catholic church. The church claims to be the only true church, instituted by God, and it thus seems to claim for itself exclusive franchise rights via a divine mandate to do all sort of things on God's behalf. Some would say that this is a major case of theological hubris. I went to a web site that gives a "primer on indulgences", and this is what I found: God uses the Church when he removes temporal penalties. This is the essence of the doctrine of indulgences. Earlier we defined indulgences as "what we receive when the Church lessens the temporal penalties to which we may be subject even though our sins have been forgiven."So according to the teaching, it isn't God who grants indulgences, it's the Catholic Church itself that does so on God's behalf. This is what I mean by power tripping. The church may no longer claim that "there is no salvation outside the church" as it used to back in the Middle Ages, since now they actually seem to accept that Protestants are Christians (although Benedict said a couple of years ago that Protestant churches aren't true churches); but (sorry, Frank, but I have to be blunt in saying how I feel about this) that same underlying theological arrogance seems to permeate its theology in other ways, and to me this doctrine of indulgences seems like an example of this.